Navigating the Navigation Center

With construction on San Mateo County’s new Navigation Center close to wrapping up, on Tuesday the county held its official ribbon-cutting and then gave tours of the essentially complete facility. Although this week’s event doesn’t appear to have been widely publicized, and although I wasn’t sent an invite, I nevertheless got wind of it and decided to go by and see what was what. To my delight, I discovered that they were willing to take walk-ins.

I was assigned to a tour that, as it turns out, was one of the very last, which was nice in that it gave me more time to talk to the folks staffing the various stations throughout the 2.5-acre campus. It also gave me plenty of time to dawdle just a bit and take photos, a number of which I’ll be sharing with you in today’s post. Knowing that many of you are as interested in this project as I have been, and want to see what the place is actually like inside, let’s get started!

San Mateo County’s new Navigation Center is composed of two conventionally built buildings and 130 pre-fabricated modules. The modules, each 40 feet long and 10 feet wide, were built to the county’s design by a firm in Perris, California (in Riverside County) and then transported to the site. Although the modules were designed to be stacked as many as six modules high, here in Redwood City the stacks don’t exceed three modules in height. In addition, two pre-built elevator towers — complete with motors and elevator cars — were transported to the site and, like the modules, craned into position.

The Navigation Center is located at 275 Blomquist St., an address that didn’t exist prior to this project. However, as part of the negotiation between Redwood City (who owned the land where the county wanted to build its Navigation Center) and the county, Redwood City agreed to extend Blomquist Street — which previously terminated at Maple Street, very close to the site San Mateo County had its eyes on — past the project site and out to where Redwood Creek flows beneath Highway 101. So far, Blomquist has been extended to the old Maple Street Shelter; once that shelter has been torn down, the street should be extended to the creek.

Once the county took title to its site — it swapped the nearby parcel containing the old Maple Street Shelter (which it owned) for the Redwood City-owned parcel at Blomquist and Maple — it immediately got to work raising the site by seven feet, to help protect it against sea level rise. Then, an additional three feet of soil was added to the site to allow for compaction.

Once the site had settled, the official groundbreaking was held, and site improvements began. At the same time, Blomquist Street was extended, a task that involved creating a small bridge over the tiny creek running parallel to Maple Street:

The groundbreaking was held on April 13, 2022. This week’s ribbon-cutting took place on April 18, 2023, almost exactly one year later. Although the center isn’t quite ready for its residents yet — there remain a handful of punch-list items to be completed — enough of it is ready that the center anticipates opening its doors on or around May 10 to approximately 85 folks currently living at the nearby Maple Street Shelter.

San Mateo County’s new Navigation Center contains 240 residential units, and can accommodate up to 260 adult residents (couples, married or not, can share a unit). Thanks to modular construction, the county was able to construct what is a rather large Navigation Center in just about a year. The actual placing of the modules only took about four months, while the construction of the two conventionally built buildings — one of which is the dining hall and kitchen, and one of which is a combination community room and support center — took nearly as long: about 3.5 months.

Most of the modules — 84 of them, I believe — contain a pair of 200-square-foot residences, consisting of a single main room and a private ADA-compliant bathroom. Here is what the main room in one of those units looks like:

And here is the bathroom:

(The toilet is off to the left, not quite visible in this shot.) Note that the doorway is wide, there are safety rails, and getting into and out of the shower (which has a seat, for those who need one) does not require one to make a large step up or down.

Referring back to the prior picture showing the main room, note the individual heater/AC unit on the wall by the window. Also note the desk, the open storage shelves, and the closet. Here is a better look at that closet, and at the additional shelving just next to it:

Note that one of the doors to the closet has a lock. And take a close look at what’s on the bottom shelf to the right of the closet: that’s an in-room safe. Combined with the fact that each unit’s door has an electronic lock (with a 10-key keypad), it’s clear that providing a secure environment for the residents and for their belongings is an important part of this new Navigation Center.

Here is what the front door to one of the units looks like:

Note the locking mechanism, the lighted doorbell button, and the lights on the wall that keep the corridor — this particular one is on the ground floor of a three-unit stack — from being too dark.

Something like 18 of the modules contain four 100-square-foot residences each, for a total of 72 single rooms. These are similarly equipped, with two main differences: the beds are smaller, and they don’t have a private bathroom.

To make up for the lack of bathrooms in the smaller units, a couple of the modules contain nothing but sinks, toilets, and showers:

There are a small number of laundry modules as well, allowing residents to do their laundry on-site.

Other modules are for offices, clinics, and storage. The following picture shows some of the center’s medical and dental clinics (on the left, and in the back). It also gives a glimpse into the Navigation Center’s community room, which was built using conventional techniques, and not assembled out of modules.

The other conventionally built building houses the communal dining hall and kitchen:

Here is a closer view of the indoor dining area:

And here is a view of the kitchen:

In addition to being used to prepare three meals a day (365 days a year!) for the center’s residents and staff, this kitchen will do duty as a training center for residents wanting to learn the necessary skills for a job in the restaurant industry.

For those wanting to eat their meals out-of-doors in our glorious California sunshine, they of course have that option, too:

There are individual benches and small landscaped outdoor spaces scattered around the Navigation Center, like this one:

For those who like to garden, there is a small community garden space along the property’s back fence:

There is also a basketball court (just a half court, I believe), and a BBQ area. Plus, a really nice dog park:

One of the more unusual features, apparently, of San Mateo County’s Navigation Center is the fact that pets are allowed. Dogs, cats … even pet snakes will be allowed, I was told.

Finally, you may have noticed them in some of the earlier pictures, but scattered around the center are a number of places where one can chain up a bike:

On the subject of transportation, there is a fair amount of parking — something in the neighborhood of 75 parking spaces — running along two sides of the center, for those who have cars. For those who don’t, SamTrans route 270 now stops at the corner of Blomquist and Maple streets, just across Maple from the Navigation Center. That route makes a loop starting and stopping at the transit center in downtown Redwood City (which is immediately adjacent to both downtown Redwood City and the Sequoia Station shopping center) and extending all the way down to Marsh Road and the Marsh Manor shopping center. As well, the Navigation Center itself will be operating two vans that will take folks to and from Sequoia Station. Finally, thanks to the extension to Blomquist Street and the recently completed Highway 101 pedestrian underpass, walking to and from the shopping center where Kohl’s and Sports Basement are located, as well as downtown Redwood City, is fairly easy (as I can attest, since I do that walk quite frequently).

In some of my photographs, you may have noticed some rather interesting metal fencing. The site, exclusive of the parking lots, is completely enclosed by those fences. However, they were thoughtfully placed so as to keep the place from looking like a prison. For instance, take a look at how they work with the exterior walls of the building to form a secure, but fairly attractive, perimeter:

Zooming out, here is a wider view of the Navigation Center from the new section of Blomquist Street; note how the buildings, and not the fences, dominate the view:

The main entrance is gated, but I should note that residents will be pretty much free to come and go as they please. I was told that although they will likely need to sign in and out, that is primarily in the unlikely event of an emergency: if the place needs to be evacuated, Navigation Center staff will use that information to make sure that everyone has safely gotten out. Here is that gated main entrance, incidentally:

Other interesting facts about the center include the fact that it was built to LEED Silver standards. The landscaping is irrigated using recycled water, and there should be enough solar panels on the building rooftops to generate 60% of the center’s energy requirements.

As for cost, San Mateo County’s new Navigation Center cost $57 million in total. However, $46.1 million of that came from a California state Homekey grant, and an additional $5 million was donated by developer/philanthropist John Sobrato. An additional half million — which I believe was used to purchase furniture — was obtained from a federal Community Project Funding grant, thanks to Congresswoman Jackie Speier. And multiple trade groups made donations of labor and/or money. Finally, the few remaining funds were of course supplied by the county (some American Rescue Plan Act funds, and some from the county’s General Fund).

The county has a five-year contract with LifeMoves to operate the center, and has contracts with multiple service providers for physical and mental health, dental, social services, employment, and other services. This will cost money, of course, but the county has $9.2 million from a Homekey grant that it will apply to operations, and will be funding $5 million for the LifeMoves contract and for other service provider contracts.

The county has done an amazing job of creating what just might be the key to dealing with our homeless problem. By getting people into housing first, and then providing them with a variety of services to help them deal with their physical and mental health (including with substance abuse issues), with finding jobs, and with finding more permanent housing, this short-term housing solution should be an excellent first step on the road to a more conventional way of life. There are numerous affordable housing projects throughout the county that will hopefully allow the folks who start out in the Navigation Center to take that next step — something the county anticipates that they should be able to do after a 3-4 month stay at the Navigation Center.

And speaking of that next step, if the county truly reaches its goal of “functional zero” — at which point the county will be providing enough housing to house all of the homeless folks who want it — the Navigation Center apparently has been designed so that it could turn into a more permanent form of low-income housing. Here’s hoping that we get to that point!

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